Brady Findell practices walking the slack line at the Lowell Whiteman School outside Steamboat Springs on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007.

Photo by Brian Ray

Brady Findell practices walking the slack line at the Lowell Whiteman School outside Steamboat Springs on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007.

Growing rock climbing program producing next crop of local pioneers

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Walk the line

You may have noticed people hanging out around town - hanging and walking on taut pieces of nylon webbing. Often seen slung high in the trees of Little Toots Park, some Steamboat slackline enthusiasts have been known to walk 35-foot lengths over local ponds.

Just don't call them slackers.

Although the nylon webbing used in the growing sport of slacklining - popularized by rock climbers, from whom it borrows the knots and basic equipment - is put under tension, the tightrope still has enough flexibility, or slack, to create a challenging way to cross-train and develop balance and mental focus.

"It's a good way to train for climbing, it's fun for camping, it helps foot strength, balance, agility," said Alex Moore, an instructor for the Lowell Whiteman School's climbing program. "For skiing or snowboarding, it's a great core builder to help you improve your edge."

Slacklining has taken off as a sport unto itself. Its devout athletes will make the distinction between low-lining (where you can jump off onto the ground) and high-lining, where the line walker will tether themselves to the line. The most famous and visible examples of high-lining were born out of Scott Balcom's successful 1985 crossing of a 55-foot line strung 2,900 feet up, between the Lost Arrow Spire and Yosemite National Park's valley rim.

All you need is a length of one-inch tubular webbing, two to three carabineers and two solid anchor points. There's a few different knots and methods used to put tension on the line. Web sites such as www.uponaline.com and www.slackline.com can walk you through the steps, then the rest of the walking is up to you.

— Alex Moore hopes to strengthen his students by teaching them the basics.

And the "basics" that Moore addresses are ones he knows are wired into his students' evolutionary hardware - what he calls the "innate human instinct to scale the obstacles of the natural environment."

Sometimes when Moore, a 31-year-old Lowell Whiteman School Spanish teacher, takes students in his rock and ice climbing club on trips across the West, the budding climbers take the Neanderthal-savant theme to its limit - scoping potential harness-free bouldering "problem" routes with charcoal smeared across their faces after a few nights camped outside.

But since Moore took over the program four years ago, the students in the club have pushed themselves to their own limits, ready to safely venture out and tackle new routes and tougher challenges on their own.

Brady Findell was a freshman four years ago when he joined Moore's club.

"We'd go bouldering on Rabbit Ears (Pass) or do a day trip to Blob Rock (near Fish Creek Falls), just starting climbs and I couldn't do anything, 5.6-5.7 (rated) maybe," Findell said.

Now, Findell estimates he can get up an advanced 5.10-rated route characterized as a sustained climb with very small handholds and footholds.

"We're considering possibilities now," Findell said of the nearby climbing options. "We can build our own anchors and everything, so it frees us up."

"I started climbing here and we'll go out on weekends now on our own, just with friends to Butcherknife (Canyon) or something," said Jennings Anderson, who, like Findell, is a Steamboat Springs native and Whiteman senior who has mastered the fundamentals throughout the years in the club.

Anderson noted that the club has grown from about eight students to more than 20, as more climbers pick up on the lengths and distances that Moore will go to help them test newfound skills.

This year, the group has traveled for a fall trip to central Colorado's 11-Mile Canyon and for a desert trip to southern Idaho's Silent City of Rocks. Saturday, the group headed to the Colorado National Monument for the weekend.

"It's climbing all day, every day," said Moore, who spent years guiding climbing trips throughout Latin America before graduating from the University of Colorado in 2004. "They'll really take it into their hands, like when we did these simulated rescue scenarios of lowering someone off a rock face. Otherwise, we're doing the whole gamut - bouldering, (fixed anchor) sport climbing, top-roping, rappelling, ice."

The sound of the word of "ice" made Janis McLaughlin's ears perk up.

"It's so cool I don't know how to explain it - way cooler than rock climbing," McLaughlin said in eager anticipation of the club's fourth winter trip to the Ouray Ice Park.

Students from the club gathered outside in the Whiteman commons after school Thursday, centered around a taut piece of nylon webbing rigged between two trees.

In between trips, the club often heads for the 35-foot climbing wall in their gym or sets up an outdoor "slackline" to practice balance and stay familiar with the climbing equipment involved in the flexible tightrope-like challenge.

"It's a block and tackle system," Anderson says as he explains the tension system that turns two anchor points, three carabineers and a length of one-inch tubular webbing into a test of mental focus and core-based balance.

"It's a fun thing to do after climbing," Moore says while watching the circus-like antics. "Just two strong anchor points and some webbing to stay strong and challenge your friends."

As the Whiteman students one-up one another to see who can make it further down the slackline, the group begins to disperse as students cite everything from freeskiing practice to loads of homework. But many of the students stay and keep practicing, keenly aware they are privileged to attend a school with resources and instructors like Moore available to help them hone their base instincts to approach the vertical outdoors - that is, if they can balance it with the books.

"We just don't sleep," Whitney Holtan joked.

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